Tuesday, March 12, 2013
In Book II, Chapter 1 of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (pictured), beginning on page 192 in the version to which I have linked, the novel's protagonist, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, describes an oral agreement with his landlady. The context is as follows:
The day after Raskolnikov has committed a double homicide, he is called to the police office. He is understandably unnerved and fears that the authorities are on to him. Moreoever, he is about to fall into a fit of delirium and is in no condition to keep his wits about him before the police. However, when he arrives, it turns out that he has been called in as a debtor. The supersilious assistant superintendent informs Raskolnikov that he has been called in on an I.O.U. that he made out to his landlady, the widow Zarnitsyn, for 115 roubles. It appears that the good widow has assigned the I.O.U. to one Mr. Tchebarov who is now seeking recovery.
Raskolnikov, relieved that he has not been called in for murder, explains to the authorities why he is so surprised to be expected to pay his debt. He informs them that he had had his rooms with the widow Zarnitsyn for three years. Early in his time there, he promised to marry the widow's daughter, and since he was practially a son-in-law, the widow extrended credit to him. But the daughter had died of typhus.
Some time after that, the widow came to Raskolnikov and, while claiming that she still trusted him, offered that she would trust him more if he gave her an I.O.U. for the full amount of the debt that he owed her for the lodgings -- that would be the 115 roubles. He signed the I.O.U. based on her assurances that, once he signed, she would trust him and would never, never seek to enforce it. Raskolnikov adds a sort of laches argument that the widow had waited until he had lost his lessons and had no source of income whatsoever to seek to recover on the I.O.U.
The authorities were not interested in these details, instructing Raskolnikov: :"You must give a written undertaking, but as for your love affairs and all these tragic events, we have nothing to do with that." If any of our readers has any familiarity with 19th-century Russian law, feel free to weigh in, but it does seem like Raskolnikov has only the weakest of fraud in the inducement claims and so his testimony as to the widow's promise, though perhaps admissible despite the written agreement, will carry little weight. Of course, Raskolnikov would have to show that the widow knew, at the time she promised not to enforce the I.O.U. that she in fact would do so. And does it matter that such a promise should not be taken seriously on any account, or were 19th-century Russians really so romantic that they valued signed undertakings even if they had no intention of enforcing them?
Or, even absent a showing of fraud, Raskolnikov's parol evidence might be relevant to show the parties' frames of mind. Although the document looks legally binding, perhaps neither party regarded it as such. Both had in mind only a written affirmation of their mutual obligations -- the landlady avowed her trust and Raskolnikov evidenced his trustworthiness through his willingness to sign. The I.O.U. is no more enforceable than a written pledge to be best friends forever.
There is also the additional issue. The widow did not seek to enforce the I.O.U.; she assigned it to Tchebarov, whom she likely did not inform of her promise to Raskolnikov. If the I.O.U. really is unenforceable, then the transfer of it ought not to make it any more so, and if the widow has committed some sort of fraud, it might arise from passing on an I.O.U. that she knows to be worthless as though it were of some value.